PLSC 114: Introduction to Political Philosophy

Lecture 18

 - Democracy and Participation: Rousseau, Discourse on Inequality (Author's Preface, Part I)


This lecture is an introduction to the life and works of Rousseau, as well as the historical and political events in France after the death of Louis XIV. Writing in a variety of genres and disciplines, Rousseau helped bring to fruition the political and intellectual movement known as the Enlightenment. Among his most important works is the Second Discourse (Discourse on Inequality), in which Rousseau traces the origins of inequality and addresses the effects of time and history on humans. He goes on to discuss a number of qualities, such as perfectibility, compassion, sensitivity, and goodness, in an attempt to assess which ones were a part of our original nature.

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Introduction to Political Philosophy

PLSC 114 - Lecture 18 - Democracy and Participation: Rousseau, Discourse on Inequality (Author's Preface, Part I)

Chapter 1. Who Is Rousseau? [00:00:00]

Professor Steven Smith: I hope that everybody followed Rousseau’s advice and yesterday exercised your rights as citizens of a free state. We hope so. I begin today with an apology and that is for the particular edition that you’re using for this section of the class on Rousseau. This is the only edition that I’ve assigned in the course that I don’t like. Why did I assign it? Because I want us to read the Second Discourse, the Discourse on Inequality and the Social Contract and this is the only edition that I could find where they are both in the same volume and I don’t have to assign two separate books. So, in order to keep your costs down, I bit the bullet and assigned a translation in an edition I don’t particularly care for. A far superior edition is found in this. This is one of the two volumes, the Cambridge Bluebook series as it’s called, edited and translated by Gourevitch. If anybody wants to do more advanced work in Rousseau, you will no doubt get this edition, better translations, better notes and so on, of the Second Discourse and The Social Contract and for anybody who’s interested, I’ve decided because Rousseau has become so important to me, that next year I will be offering an undergraduate seminar entirely devoted to Rousseau. He’s one of the handful of writers, of political philosophers, to whom one could, in all justice, devote an entire semester to his writings and that’s what I want to do next year. So if any of you should get the bug, the Rousseau bug, next year we’ll do Rousseau in many more texts, in detail. So with that having been said, I’m going to talk today about a remarkable, remarkable human being and writer.

It’s a very common way of entering the thought of Rousseau to see him as a critic of liberalism, of the kind of property owning, rights-based society given expression by John Locke and I will talk about that a little bit later. But to see Rousseau as a critic of Lockean liberalism would be I think very shortsighted and very unfair. Rousseau was a product not of liberal society but rather of the ancien régime, the old regime in France. Rousseau was born in 1712. It was two years before the death of the famous Sun King, Louis XIV, a man who symbolized the age of absolutism, and he died in 1778 approximately a decade before the outbreak of the French Revolution. His life, in other words, was lived entirely within the waning decades, the waning years of the age of absolutism in France and in continental Europe. Rousseau was deeply aware that he lived in an age of transition but what precisely would come after he was by no means clear. He wrote, as you will see, with the passion and the intensity of someone who fully expected to be instrumental in the coming of a new historical and political epoch and indeed he was. Rousseau was Swiss. He was not French. He was a Swiss. He signed many of his most important words simply citoyen de Gèneve, a citizen of Geneva, after the city where he was born. He was the son of an artisan who abandoned his family after a falling out with the local authorities and the young Rousseau was apprenticed to an engraver but he left Geneva; he fled Geneva for good at the age of 16. For the following 16 years, Rousseau lived a kind of vagabond varied life doing many different things, working as a music instructor and a transcriber. He was the secretary to the French Ambassador in the city of Venice and he was also the lover of a wealthy woman many years his senior.

After moving to Paris in 1744, Rousseau spent several years eking out a living, sort of on the margins of the Parisian literary scene until 1750 when he published his first, although quite brief major essay, a work called The Discourse on the Arts and the Sciences, which catapulted him to literary fame. That work made his name so it was–it came to be called the First Discourse. That work was followed five years later in 1755 by the work we will be reading starting today,The Discourse on the Origins of Inequality, often simply called the Second Discourse, and that work was followed later on in 1762 with the Social Contract and also the same year that Rousseau published his major massive work on political education called émile or On Education, both in 1762. During this period, Rousseau fathered five children. He abandoned all of them to an orphanage. He did so with a common-law wife with whom he lived and during this times the writings I’ve mentioned are only a small portion although a very important portion of the writings which he lived. He was also the author of a very large novel, HeloiseThe New HeloiseLa Nouvelle Heloise, which was a bestseller in his time and it was a kind of philosophical novel that helped- that explored many of his ideas. He was the composer of an opera,Le Devin du Village, that was performed at the court of Louis XV.

He also wrote several very important and interesting volumes of autobiography, the most–the best known of which is simply called Confessions after the work of Saint Augustine of the title–a book of the same name and he also wrote another volume of autobiography in a dialog form called Rousseau Juge de Jean Jacques in which he divides himself up into two different people, Rousseau and Jean Jacques, in a kind of internal interrogation of himself. Rousseau wrote in many and varied genres and his work spans the entire gamut of philosophical, literary and political themes. He was also the writer of different constitutional projects. He was consulted by heads of state in his period and wrote constitutions for Poland and for the small island country of Corsica which he said in the Social Contract was the only place in Europe that one might expect great things and of course he was right as anybody knows, a generation or two later the famous Corsican, yes, who put an end…Who am I talking about? Napoleon, of course. You might say he was right. He helped to substitute the general’s will for the general will but that was Rousseau.

People have been very baffled by exactly the nature of Rousseau’s contributions. What did he believe? What did he stand for? What do his writings represent? Was he a revolutionary whose work helped to inspire the radical phases of the French Revolution? Just remember, for example, you’ve probably all heard the famous opening sentence of theSocial Contract, “man is born free but is everywhere in chains,” his appeal to the severe political ethics of ancient Sparta and Rome as well as his belief that the people, in their collective capacity, are the only legitimate source of sovereignty. All of these seemed to pave the way for the revolutionary politics of the late eighteenth century and up into our own time. So is Rousseau a kind of incendiary and revolutionary or did his writings seek to release us altogether from the bonds of society as he appears to do in the Second Discourse, in the Discourse on Inequality? In this work, Rousseau seems to lay the basis for the kind of romantic individualism that would be associated with people like Wordsworth in England or Henry David Thoreau in America. Rousseau’s direct appeals to Nature as well as his celebration of the simplicity of peasant life and rural life seemed to open the door later on to writers like Tolstoy as well as to various kinds of social experiments in rural communal utopianism such as, for example, the Israeli kibbutz movement, which is in its own way a direct descendant of Rousseau.

So my suggestion is Rousseau’s writings are varied and his influence has been manifold, to say the least. He both helps to bring to fruition and completion the political and intellectual movement that we know as the Enlightenment. He brings this to its highest phase of perfection, in many ways, and at the same time he was a severe critic of the Enlightenment. He was a close friend and associate of men like Diderot, who was the general editor of the Encyclopedia, the great French contribution to the age of the Enlightenment, and yet he excoriated the progress of the arts and the sciences and worried about their effect on the moral life of communities. He was a writer who wore different hats. He defended what he called the savage, sauvage, against the civilized man. He took the side of the poor and the dispossessed against the elites and he adopted the posture of the loyal son and citizen of Geneva against the sophisticated Parisian intellectuals of his time. So who was Rousseau and what did he stand for? That’s what I want us to begin to try to find out a little about today.

The Second Discourse, the Discourse on Inequality, is in the eyes of many readers Rousseau’s greatest work. I’m not sure if that’s true but many people believe it is. It is what writers in the eighteenth century called a conjectural history. It is, that is to say, a kind of philosophical history, really that is to say a philosophical reconstruction of history, but not of what actually happened in the past. It’s not a history of facts and dates but it is a history Rousseau believes of what had to have happened for, in a way, human beings to evolve to their current condition. Rousseau begins the work by comparing the effects of history on us to the statue of Glaucus that he says the winds and storms had so disfigured that it scarcely looked like a human being at all. This is what history and time has done to us. It has so affected and transformed human nature that if we want to understand what human nature really is, he argues, it is necessary to reconstruct it through a kind of thought experiment.

Rousseau compares the Second–Oh, God. Oh, dear. All right. Rousseau–Bad to laugh at your own jokes. He compares the Second Discourse to an experiment like those undertaken by physicists and cosmologists in his own day who speculate about the origins of the universe in the same way that he is speculating about the original condition of human nature. That is to say, there is no empirical or physical evidence to draw on to understand how the world was actually framed. We can only make, he says, intelligent guesses, certain inferences or conjectures based on the evidence that we find around us. And so Rousseau remarks, in one of the most arresting passages from his book, and Rousseau was a man known for writing arresting paradoxical and ingenious sentences, he writes, “let us therefore begin by putting aside all the facts, let us put all the facts aside for they have no bearing on the case. The investigation that may be undertaken concerning this subject should not be taken for historical truths,” he says, “but only for hypothetical and conditional reasonings.” In other words, what he’s saying is that the history that he intends to unfold is an experiment much like, again, that undertaken by geologists who try to infer the development of plant or animal life from the existence of certain fossil remains or skeletal remains.

And yet, at the same time, while Rousseau speaks of his work as tentative, experimental, conjectural, he has only hazarded some guesses, he writes, you cannot help but be struck by the certain tone of confidence with which he presents his findings. In particular, he discusses and rejects quite emphatically the investigations of his predecessors both ancient and modern. “The philosophers,” he writes, “who have examined the foundations of society have all felt the necessity of returning to the state of nature but none of them has reached it,” Rousseau says. He believes that he alone has finally, as it were, struck gold. “Oh, man,” he exclaims, “oh, man, whatever country you may be from, whatever your opinions may be, listen. Here is your history as I have thought to read it, not in the books of your fellow men who are liars but in nature who never lies.” That’s a remarkable sentence. For the first time, Rousseau says, human nature will be revealed and the history of civil society explained to us. Listen. Here is your history, as I have read it, not through other books but through nature, he says, that seems to speak directly to me or to which I have an insight.

Chapter 2. Rousseau’s State of Nature [00:18:22]

So what is the state of nature, a term that we’ve been looking at in Hobbes and Locke? What is it that Rousseau thinks he has found that that eluded his predecessors? In many ways we have already seen, I’ve already suggested. Rousseau follows in the footsteps of his great predecessors, particularly Hobbes and Locke, in attempting to understand the original condition by referring to this hypothetical or conjectural state of nature. In many ways, he praises and follows Hobbes and Locke in doing this but suggests that they never really took the problem of nature seriously enough. What does it mean, Rousseau seems to ask us, to take nature, human nature, the state of nature, what does it mean to take nature seriously? Again to understand it, to understand human nature, what it originally is, is to conduct a sort of thought experiment where we peel away almost like the layers of an onion, everything that we have acquired through the influence of time, of history, of custom and tradition, in order to discover what is naturally there. So when Hobbes tells us or when he attributes to natural man certain warlike propensities, Rousseau figures that this cannot be right.

War and the passions that give rise to war can only come into being once we are in society. The state of war is really simply the state of society. This cannot be told for natural man because the natural conditions had no social relationships of this sort and you might say his statement was ditto for John Locke. When Locke attributes to us in the state of nature certain qualities of rationality, of industry, of acquisitiveness. These too, Rousseau complains, are only qualities that we can acquire in the light of society. Property entails social relations between persons, relations of justice and injustice, and man in a state of nature is not a social animal. So it is clear for Rousseau that human nature is something infinitely more remote and strange than any of his predecessors had ever imagined. What was the condition of natural man? Rousseau’s captivated readers, in his time and since, by showing that the original condition of human nature was far more like an animal than anything identifiably or recognizably human. Rousseau takes great delight in animalizing human nature, animalizing us.

When Aristotle said that man is the rational being because we possess speech or logos Rousseau says “wrong again.” Language is dependent upon society and could only have developed over literally thousands of generations and cannot be a property of natural man. Human nature is little different from animal nature and, in many ways, Rousseau delights in…you can see this in his footnotes in particular…in investigating stories about orangutans and other species that he believes, in many ways, are our distant ancestors. You might say, a century before Darwin, Rousseau could just have easily entitled his second discourse On the Origins of the Species. In many ways, the whole science of evolutionary biology is already, in many ways, implicit here and yet for all of our features, our common features with other species, Rousseau specifies two qualities that set us apart. The first is the quality of freedom or what he calls free agency although he understands this in a very specific way. Let me read a relevant or crucial passage. “In any animal,” Rousseau writes, “in any animal I see nothing but an ingenious machine to which nature has given senses in order for it to renew its strength and to protect itself to a certain point from all that tends to disturb it. I am aware of precisely the same thing in the human machine.” In other words, he says animals are just simply little machines that operate by mechanical or physical impulses and needs and desires and the same is true, he says, in the human machine with this difference, “that nature alone does everything in the operations of an animal whereas man contributes as a free agent to his own operations.”

What does he mean there in saying that man is a free agent? This idea of free agency in many ways sounds similar, and indeed it is similar, to Hobbes and Locke, both of whom who said freedom of will, some kind of freedom is a characteristic of natural man or natural pre social man. But Rousseau seems to add to this something different. Freedom for Hobbes or Locke simply means the freedom to choose to do this or that, the freedom to exercise the will and not to be interfered with by others around us. Rousseau also believes that but in many ways he adds something else to it. He connects freedom, in this same passage, to what he calls the phenomenon or the quality, the faculty of perfectibility,perfectibilité. What does he mean in connecting freedom with what he calls perfectibility? Perfectibility, for Rousseau, suggests an openness, a sort of virtually unlimited openness to change. We are the species who not only have the freedom to do this or that but we are the species who have the freedom, as it were, to become this or that. And it is our very openness to change that accounts for our mutability over time. As a species, in other words, we are you might say, uniquely undetermined, meaning that our nature is not confined in advance to what it may become; rather, our nature, for Rousseau, is uniquely suited to alter and transform itself as circumstances change and as we adapt and adopt to new and unforeseen situations. Perfectibility for Rousseau is not so much a feature of the individual as it is of the species.

And again, whereas Hobbes or Locke assumed that human nature itself remained more or less constant in the transition from what they called the state of nature to the civil state, Rousseau believed that human nature has undergone manifold revolutions as he called it over the source of time. What we are at any one phase of human history or human evolution will be very, very different from what we are at any other particular phase. And it is this what he calls distinctive and unlimited faculty that he says is also the source of all of our misfortunes. So when he says that we are characterized by freedom and associates freedom with perfectibility, he doesn’t necessarily mean by “perfectibility” that which perfects us. He also says it is that which is at the source of our miseries and our discontents. In many ways, if you wanted to give this book another title I’ve already suggested one for it, The Origin of the Species. It could just as well have been called more than a century before Freud, Civilization and its Discontents, which is many ways Freud’s attempt to rewrite Rousseau’s account of the evolution of the human species. But Rousseau notes, in this same part, that freedom or perfectibility is not our sole natural characteristic although it is responsible, in some way, for almost everything that we have become. Everything that we have become is due to this openness to change.

In addition to perfectibility and freedom is the quality that Rousseau calls pitié, or pity, compassion, and here is, in a sense, Rousseau at his most characteristic. You could say, here is Rousseau, the founder of Romanticism. Man is not the rational animal, the thinking being, the being with logos, but we are the sensitive creature. Rousseau finds all kinds of evidence for assuming that compassion is part of our original nature. He notes, in other species, a reluctance to witness the pain or suffering of another of its own kind, how an animal will not wish to walk near a dead member of its own species. That seems to indicate to Rousseau, even in the other species, a kind of natural core of compassion or pity. The fact that we cry at the misfortunes of others who have nothing to do with us is evidence of our original sensitivity. Do we not enjoy crying in movies? Has someone in here ever cried in a movie? Yeah, I thought we all have. Even at people or objects that don’t exist. Did we not feel pity for King Kong when we saw that movie? Did we not feel pity for a fictional creature that could not exist but yet whose fate somehow affected us in some way? And Rousseau completely understands this. In giving man tears, Rousseau writes, nature bears witness that she gave the human race the softest of hearts.

Man is a sensitive creature, so much so that Rousseau finds evidence in this for what he believes is our natural goodness. The natural goodness of man in the state of nature is to some degree borne out by this quality of pity or compassion that we even share with other species. Why does Rousseau emphasize this quality? Because it is deeply important to him. You might say long before Dr. Phil and thousands of other self-help gurus and self-help manuals, Rousseau taught us to get in touch with our feelings. While natural man may be compassionate and kind, however, that sentiment, he tells us, is easily overpowered by more powerful passions once we enter society, once we become civilized or socialized. We cease, once we are in society, to care about others and we become calculating and mercenary in other motives. Selfishness and egoism are in fact reinforced for him by the development of reason. Reason, he writes, is what engenders egoism and reflection strengthens it. The development of rationality, he thinks, simply hastens our corruption by the assisting in the development of different vices and the task of the Second Discourse, at least its rhetorical task, is in many ways to recover our natural selves, compassionate, gentle, kind, from the artificial, corrupt and calculating selves we have all become in civil society. And who can’t read that in Rousseau without realizing that there is a significant germ of truth in what he says?

Did Rousseau believe it possible then or desirable to return to the state of nature, to return to some kind of prelapsarian condition before the beginnings of civil society? He is frequently read as saying this. When Voltaire wrote–read, rather, the Second Discourse, he said, “never has so much intelligence been expended in the attempt to turn us back into brutes” and that is clever but it’s not really right. Voltaire surely knew that 150 years before Rousseau, there was a French writer by the name of Montaigne, Michel de Montaigne, who had written an important essay called On Cannibalsin which he described Indian tribes off the coast of Brazil whom he praised against the true savagery and barbarism of their European conquers. When he calls that essay, that famous essay, Michel called–Montaigne calls it Of Cannibals, it is an open question of who the cannibals are. Are they the natives of the Brazilian coast or are they again the European conquerors? And Montaigne, like Rousseau but a century or more before, praised, in many ways, the qualities and the capacities of these sauvage that he discovered and contrasted them to the bloodthirsty cruelty of the Europeans of his own day. Rousseau was deeply influenced by this particular essay and it’s a short essay and I would suggest at some point when you have a chance you read it.

But in any case, Rousseau makes it plain that a return to the state of nature or some kind of pre-social or pre-civil state is no longer an option for civilized beings. In one of the footnotes, and I encourage you to read the footnote, very important footnotes in his book, Rousseau writes, “What then? Must we destroy societies, annihilate thine and mine and return to live in the forests with the bears? A conclusion,” he writes, “in the style of my adversaries, which I prefer to anticipate rather than to leave to them the shame of drawing.” And, he says, in other words no, we can’t do that. A return to the state of nature is impossible for us for the same reason it would be like returning a domestic animal back to the wild. They and we have simply lost our instinct for self-preservation. It has been dulled by continual association and dependence on others. We would not last a single day. So if a return to nature is impossible, the only alternative in some way is to remain in society. But before we can learn how to live in society, Rousseau wants to tell the story of how it is man became civilized so to speak, how the transition from nature to culture or from nature to society in fact occurred.

Chapter 3. Civilization and Property: How Man Transitioned from Nature to Society [00:34:45]

In one sense, Rousseau’s account of this story can be given in a single word: Property. The first sentence of Part II of theDiscourse reads as follows: “The first person who having enclosed a piece of land, took it into his head to say this is mine and found people simple enough to believe him was the true founder of civil society.” Locke would certainly agree, in some respects, but Rousseau continues as follows. “What crimes, wars, murders, what miseries and horrors would the human race have been spared had someone pulled up the stakes or filled in the ditch and cried out to his fellow men do not listen to this impostor. You are lost if you forget that the fruits of the earth belong to all and the earth to no one.” There you see, in a germ, in many ways, his repudiation of Locke. Rousseau was not a communist although this sounds very much in some respects like Karl Marx. He was not a communist. He did not feel it was either again possible or desirable to do away with private property or to collectivize property in the manner of a Plato or a Marx but there is no one of whom I am aware who is a more acute observer of the ills of class and the effects of private property than Rousseau. He believed that there was something deeply wrong with the conception of government as the protector of private property that intervenes as little as necessary with the affairs of individuals leaving them simply free to pursue life, liberty and estate as they would see fit. Rousseau, in many ways, points back to an older, you might say classical conception of government of the ancient polis and ancient republic, one for which politics had the task, among other things, of supervising the pursuit and acquisition of property, mitigating the harshest effects of economic inequalities. And a single sentence from Rousseau’s first discourse, The Discourse on the Arts and Sciences, in many ways, says it all. “Ancient politicians,” he wrote, “spoke only about morals and virtues. Ours speak only of commerce and money.” That was Rousseau’s complaint, no talk any longer of civic virtue and citizenship.

Locke’s view, recall from just a couple of days ago, is that the emancipation of acquisition makes everyone better. In Locke’s famous formula, a day laborer in England is housed, clothed and fed better than a king of the Americas. And Rousseau believed that from a strictly, you might say, economic point of view there is certainly a lot of truth to this. But he also realized that from the economic point of view or that the economic point of view barely began to scratch the surface of things. Rousseau is far more impressed, you might say, by the proud dignity and independence of the native American king than with all the luxuries and conveniences that have made European kings and even some European day laborers soft and dependent, in his word. Rousseau was deeply impressed, and again you see this in his footnotes, with the kind of inassimilable character of native peoples, Icelanders, Greenlanders, Hottentots, he writes, all of their refusal to assimilate in many ways to European religion and custom. They prefer their “personal independence,” he writes, “to the comforts and luxuries of modern civilization.”

Consider the following passage, which is one of the passages I love in this book that comes from his footnotes. He says, “savages have often been brought to Paris, London and other cities. People have been eager to display our luxury, our wealth and all our most useful and curious arts to them. None of this has ever excited in them anything but a stupid admiration without the least stirring of covetousness. I recall, among others, the story of a chief of some North Americans who was brought to the court of England about 30 years ago,” he writes. “A thousand things were made to pass before his eyes in an attempt to give him some present that could please him but nothing was found about which he seemed to care. Our weapons seemed heavy and cumbersome to him. Our shoes hurt his feet. Our clothes restricted him. He rejected everything. Finally, it was noticed that having taken a wool blanket, he seemed to take some pleasure in wrapping it around his shoulders. ‘You will agree at least,’ someone immediately said to him, ‘on the usefulness of this furnishing.’ ‘Yes,’ he replies, ‘this seems to be nearly as good as an animal skin.’ However,” Rousseau says, “he would not have said that had he worn both of them in the rain.” And there’s kind of Rousseau’s sense of the virtue, again. The proud independence, of the native of the sauvage, as he calls him, to the decadence, the corruptness, the softness of the modern European.

Rousseau’s assertion that market economies and the governments that protect them do in a sense make all people better off and yet despite this fact he realized that market economies also introduced vast inequalities between human beings and this is a trade off that Rousseau seemed unwilling to make or wished to make even though I would have to say most Americans seem fairly happy with this trade off perhaps because we have–we either are or have become kind of natural Lockeans but that, again, is a bargain or a tradeoff that Rousseau was at least unwilling to accept. He was not only impressed with what was gained by the progress of civilization but more impressed, so to speak, by what was lost. Its inequalities increase, we are forced to become greedy, calculating, acquisitive, again our natural pity or compassion is easily overcome by these more powerful passions. What becomes of our original goodness and natural decency? Natural man, for Rousseau, thought of himself but only of himself whereas civilized man is forced to think of others but we do only in a calculating and mercenary way, thinking of them as means to our own ends. Even the social bond itself, even the social contract, is simply an agreement among business partners, so to speak, the most bourgeois of institutions, the contract. The fact is Rousseau believes under modern conditions natural man is transformed into a bourgeois. Rousseau is one of the first to use that term in quite that way.

Locke’s rational and industrious man was, for Rousseau, simply the calculating bourgeois and unlike the natural man, who thinks only of himself, or of the classical citizen of Rome or Sparta, who thinks only of the common good and his public duties, the bourgeois inhabits a kind of halfway house, neither capable of original or spontaneous goodness nor of political heroism or self-sacrifice. In short, our modern people have become kind of nullities, nowhere men, nowhere man, you might say, in the title of the Beatles’ song. How did that happen? How did we become put in this situation? I have suggested one answer or Rousseau suggests one answer, the development of property. But that’s only part of the story and what I want to do for next week is tell another very important, in some respects even more important, part of that story of how we have become the way we are. So anyway, have a good weekend. Go to the football game and we’re going to win against Princeton.

[end of transcript]

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